Kids, Hijab, and Dentistry: My Unforgettable Year in NYC

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I am a dentist who is falling in love with kids. Working with them has always been a pleasure, even with the crankiest of kids. As a side note, yes, I already had my finger bitten, which many pediatric dentists consider as a “rite of passage”! When I was an undergraduate at the University of Padjajaran studying general dentistry, I managed to get permission from Pak Kasur’s family to rephrase the legendary “Bangun Tidur” song, so that instead of telling kids to brush their teeth during shower, the song tells them to brush after breakfast and before bedtime. Thanks to my lecturers who guided me through my undergraduate years, I finally knew that pediatric dentistry is my passion.

Realizing that kids in Indonesia all deserve a healthier and a better smile, I went to learn pediatric dentistry abroad to get a different point of view.  In June 2013, I enrolled in the Advanced Program for International Dentist in Pediatric Dentistry Department at New York University. This is a one year program which allows international dentists to treat American patients under NYU faculty’s supervision, so there’s no need to do the 4 years placement program. Dentists from Indonesia for example, need to “convert” our drg. (dokter gigi) degree to DDS (Doctor of Dental Surgery) degree if we want to seek practice license in United States. But in this program, 4 years placement was not needed because international dentists are required to go back to their country after the program.

My one year experience in New York is literally the best year in my life so far. The program taught me more than just the practices of dentistry. I also learned how the US government mandated their states to put dental service free for children, but not for adults. No wonder american kids have the best smiles! The service is not just for painful teeth, but they also give free preventive services for the kids. I was involved in treating american kids from all social levels by being in a dental van and providing regular 6-months check up in schools all over New York City. I also had a chance to team up with dental students, faculty, and residents from NYU to treat the kids in Ecuador for their Global Outreach Program. These experiences indeed infinitely expanded my academic and practical horizons.

During the course of the program, I befriended 13 other pediatric residents. Most of them are Americans, while others are from Pakistan, India, Saudi Arabia, and Spain. They’re all amazing partners, both in and off-work. We baked each other cookies, celebrated everyone’s birthdays, went for picnic at the Hamptons, did a surprise bachelorette party and baby shower, exchanged gifts for Secret Santa, you name it! They’re more than colleagues: they are family to me. Looking back, I couldn’t imagine surviving those buzy-crazy-noisy clinic days, and the harsh NYU winter without them.

My hijab, which had been everybody’s concern since ever, was never a problem. Parents willingly allowed my hands to work on their kid’s mouth, teachers invited me to classrooms to teach their students how to grow strong teeth, and dental students intently listened to my directions when I assessed their competency on how to drill a baby tooth. I found respect everywhere I walked. So for fellow hijab-ers who aspire to study or work in the States, don’t worry!

As a city in which you can (well, not literally) go around the world in just one day, I found that New Yorkers consistently display an enormous sense of appreciation for cultural, ethnic, and of course religious differences. For instance, there are countless  celebrations and festivals held in the city so that everybody can respect other cultures, and enjoy and appreciate the beauty in diversity. I won’t forget how I could no longer resist the tears of pride that were falling down my face during the Muslim Day Parade when all Muslims prayed Dhuhr together on one of Manhattan’s main street, Madison Avenue. I also would always remember the night when I saw, from my bedroom window, the world-famous Empire State Building lit up in green, to celebrate the day of Eid Al-Fitr and to honor Muslims all around the world. I would never forget the feelings of gratitude and unspeakable happiness that were silently stirring inside of me. NYC did not only warmly welcome me, with my veil and all. The city, and its inhabitants, truly made me feel like I found home.

Beyond my initial expectation, the program was so packed that I didn’t have much time for holiday. But New York itself never ran out of interesting places to visit, and activities to participate in. I mean, beautiful parks, amazing night lights in the city, the skyline, those cultural, historical, and artistic festival and museums (which are mostly free), and don’t forget about the foods, too! Now that I am back in Jakarta, these memories drive me crazy at times, and I can’t wait until I can visit New York City once again. No wonder people referred to NYC as the city that never sleeps–the city never escapes me, not even from my dreams now that I am so far away from it!

All in all, the program had given me so many new points of view, and added new dimensions to my passion. The direct clinical experience really taught me a lot. Chances to talk and have discussions with the experts are endless. I would recommend this program as an alternative for dentists who want to seek for more clinical experiences, as most programs available abroad for medical professionals are master and doctoral degrees. However, what I treasure the most is also the friends, and indeed, the colleagues-turned-family that I met along the way.

As I reflect back on my unforgettable year in NYC and continue to the next phase of my life, I wish that all of you can find the courage in your heart to pursue your passion, and what you love the most. I promise that the journey will be worth it. Now, it’s my time to create beautiful smiles for Indonesian kids. Wish me luck!

Content edited by Artricia Rasyid

Photo Credits: Eka Shofiyah’s personal collection and USINFO Photo Gallery (photos.state.gov) 




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Eka Shofiyah graduated as general dentist from University of Padjajaran in 2012. During her undergraduate studies, Eka has presented her research in international conferences, and revised Pak Kasur's legendary "Bangun Tidur" song. The revised version is now often played in schools to educate children on dental health. Realizing how much she loves working with kids, she pursued an advanced clinical program in pediatric dentistry at New York University from 2013 to 2014. She is currently enrolled in pediatric dentistry residency program at University of Indonesia and practices at Indo Dental Center in Jakarta.
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